On how Democrats and Republicans Worked Together to Destroy the Middle Class

The bipartisan destruction of the Middle Class:
http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_peasants_need_pitchforks_20110405/

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The Unconstitutional Mistreatment of Bradley Manning

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Shadow Budget

Or how to rip off tax payers by giving super-rich corporations and individuals massive freebies at no risk to borrowers:

www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-real-housewives-of-wall-street-look-whos-cashing-in-on-the-bailout-20110411

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In South Africa Freedom is Limited by Multinational Economics

Naomi Klein is wrong on Israel (with her advocacy of boycotts) and often shaped by ideological arguments (without consideration for complexity and abstracted from life on the ground), but there are other times that she has profound things to say.

Below she writes a fascinating article, demonstrating the tremendous power of billionaires, corporations, and Neo-Liberal economic thought.  It makes me realize how hemmed-in Obama and any national leader is.  Trying to do anything that runs up against economic orthodoxy, now matter how reasonable or moderate, is virtually impossible, given the threat of stock market declines, currency and commodity collapses, and threats of investment withdrawals.  Governments do not control their societies or their national resources; corporations and powerful interests do.

http://www.naomiklein.org/articles/2011/02/democracy-born-chains

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Harassing WikiLeaks’ Jacob Appelbaum

Apparently the government is not too keen on WikiLeaks and its reps. Just one more blow, I guess, against freedom. What exactly does the Bill of Rights mean any more?
www.thestranger.com/seattle/obsessed-with-jacob/Content?oid=7560624

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Cutting Government Does Not Create Jobs

“Cutting government creates jobs.” A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. Cutting government does not create jobs.

I certainly believe that government needs cutting in many places, but not because it creates jobs.¬† We need to do so that we don’t waste money and drive ourselves into long-term, irreparable debt. But doing so has nothing to do with creating jobs. That’s just ridiculous. Many of these attempts are really about destroying government and the good that it does. There are people whose ideology requires this, no matter the consequences. It’s an article of faith, not a way to live.

http://robertreich.org/post/4031113622

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Rev. Jim Wallis on Government Cuts

As a Jew, I thoroughly share the sentiments of Rev. Jim Wallis.  The TaNaKh and rabbinic tradition command us to take care of the poor and marginalized.  That why we are told not to plough the corners of our fields.  When the Hebrew Bible and the rabbis talk about caring for the needy, they refer to communities and governments.  The structures envisioned in those texts are governmental, and they *require* (not merely suggest) a society take the needy into account.  This tradition does not focus on voluntary acts and association, but on political structures that create a just society.  Those who try to convert these into free-market scenarios, which advocate economic commitments that are solely private, do not understand what the texts actually say.  Those who know the Hebrew and the history should start articulating the true nature of this tradition, which demands that governments protect those in need.

http://blog.sojo.net/2011/03/24/fast-pray-and-act-new-threats-to-the-poor/#disqus_thread

 

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Cutting Government Strategically

This is a good, little essay, emphasizing the importance of thinking about the purpose of government and then cutting strategically.
http://www.vpr.net/episode/50628/

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The Shameful Treatment of Bradley Manning


We are supposed to be the land of the free.  In this case, our behavior sound more like that of a tin-pot dictatorship.  Instead of being a beacon of light to the world, we are acting shamefully.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/mar/11/bradley-manning-wikileaks

Here’s a version of a description by Manning himself:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/11/stripped-naked-bradley-manning-prison

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Dalai Lama Cedes His Political Role

The Dalai Lama cedes his political role.¬† Clearly the Dalai Lama understands the Western idea of ¬†“separation of church and state,” its importance for entry into the modern world, and its role in fostering healthy civil institutions.¬† Of course, there are many traditions that Tibet will maintain, and it will adapt on it own terms.¬† Perhaps we will how a society can maintain its deep spirituality while developing democratic, secular institutions. This is impressive:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/11/world/asia/11tibet.html

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Qadaffi: His Toady Supporters in the West and His Murderous Benefactors in Africa

A wonderful article, written with flair and sardonic elegance, skewering numerous, Western individuals and organizations for serving as toadies to a brutal dictator, the “loon of loons”:¬† http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2011/03/03/the-mead-list-worlds-top-ten-gaddafi-toads/

Qadaffi has apparently supported a wide array of corrupt, violent, genocidal dictators throughout Africa, as well as several dubious leaders in Central and South America:  http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/03/04/harvard_for_tyrants?page=full

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How to Start a Peaceful Revolution: The Story of Gene Sharp


A wonderful story about a mild-mannered man whose ideas have inspired non-violent uprisings worldwide against dictatorships.

<http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/17/world/middleeast/17sharp.html?hp>http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/17/world/middleeast/17sharp.html?hp
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Democracy, the Middle East and Israel

The US and the West are essentially tourists in the Middle East, while Israelis are residents:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/charlesmoore/8348516/Libya-What-happens-after-we-stop-watching-these-revolutions-against-Col-Gaddafi.html

Conservative Fouad Adjami has faith in Arab democratic movements and their implications for Israel
http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/mideast-unrest-is-a-change-the-world-should-believe-in-scholar-says-1.345607

Also the road to democracy is long.  Democracy is not an election or majority rule, but many elections, tolerance for minority rights, and the growth of democratic institutions
http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/the-long-road-to-democracy-1.345581

Conservative Daniel Pipes is optimistic about democracy:
http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/260923/my-optimism-new-arab-revolt-daniel-pipes

I don’t agree with this negative analysis, but it’s worth paying attention to. Benny Morris could well be correct, at least in the short term.¬† In the long run, I still bet on freedom.
http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/losing-middle-east-4921

Kevin Myers also has doubts about the possibility of true democracy in the Middle East:
http://www.independent.ie/opinion/columnists/kevin-myers/kevin-myers-little-hope-of-democracy-as-arab-despots-overthrown-2549977.html

Tzipi Livni advocates a code for democracies:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/23/AR2011022305364.html

In Gaza, Islamist Hamas restricts the rights of secular individuals and groups, which are the cornerstone of a democratic society: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/25/AR2011022500824.html

In this interesting piece, Nick Cohen argues that Europe’s obsession with Israel has promoted dictatorships in the Middle East: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/27/nick-cohen-arab-middle-east-conflict

Robert Kaplan argues that democracy will be more about the establishment of authority than the restraint of it and that Turkey will have substantial influence as it did in the Ottoman period:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/25/AR2011022506229.html

I recall the peaceful nature of the demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia.  Even Libya was initially peaceful, but the protesters had to defend themselves when Qaddafi started massacring them.  This bodes well, and I remain optimistic in the longer-term (10-15 years).

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Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Yusuf al-Qaradawi

Relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are close, as this article indicates.  And now Hamas has invited one of the charismatic leaders of the Brotherhood to Gaza, Yusuf al-Qaradawi.  Egyptian Qaradawi has frequently called for jihad against Israel and Jews, the destruction of Israel, and has said that he himself looks forward to coming to Israel to personally shoot Jews.

http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/malam_multimedia/English/eng_n/html/hamas_e137.htm

For more on Qaradawi and his hatred of Jews, see the following:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/02/sheikh-qaradawi-seeks-total-war/71626/

http://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=2&x_outlet=35&x_article=2000 (this discusses not only Qaradawi’s anti-semitism, his love for Hitler and his hopes for another even more successful Jewish holocaust, but also his support for female genital mutilation and wife beating, suicide killers, the fatwa ordering the murder of Salman Rushdie, the execution of apostates, and laws treating religious minorities differently.¬† The author emphasizes the whitewashing of Muslim Brotherhood hatred and violence in the New York Times.

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Koch Brothers Buy Wisconsin

This article discusses the enormous amount of money the Koch brothers invested in the Wisconsin governor’s race: ¬†http://www.prwatch.org/news/2011/02/9964/cmd-special-report-scott-walker-runs-koch-money

And this was before the prank call!!

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California Aid Program for Homeowners Facing Foreclosure

This is what more states and the federal government should be doing.¬† Unfortunately, many people don’t want to help out, because they believe that homeowners should take responsibility for their poor judgement.¬† However, government failed to protect home buyers from predatory banks and loan agencies, while massive foreclosures are driving down prices for everyone (not just those facing bankruptcy).¬†¬† Therefore, we have both moral and practical reasons to support this kind of aid to those facing the trauma of losing their homes.

http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-keep-your-home-20110210,0,2404099.story

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Genetically Engineered Alfalfa Allowed to Grow Anywhere

For those of us who care about seed integrity, and its relation to human and planetary health, this is not good news.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/28/business/28alfalfa.html?hp

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Criticism of Bill Keller on Assange and WikiLeaks

I happen to support the idea of transparent governance as a whole.¬† Transparency is what the Internet is all about:¬† while closed, proprietary platforms decline, open source platforms are increasingly flourishing.¬† This is affecting our politics, particularly in the case of WikiLeaks.¬† While I recognize the value of secrets for diplomacy, most stuff that is labeled secret should not be.¬† WikiLeaks has unveiled documents that we have a right to know about and, for that reason, I am glad that we have access to this trove of materials.¬† Citizens of the US and others need to grow up and understand what’s going on in their home countries and in the world.

I happen to support a robust foreign policy and am not against our Iraq policy, although I recognize the ignorance, cynicism, unnecessary violence, and corruption that drove our policy there.¬† Nevertheless, I am glad that we have, for example, the WikiLeaks expose of soldiers indiscriminately killing Iraqi civilians.¬† This is war, and this is what unfortunately and tragically happens in war.¬† Do we naively believe that war is clean and neat and that soldiers always behave appropriately under incredibly stressful conditions?¬† War is filled with horror, moral degradation, and murderous rampages (we can read about that as far back as Homer’s Iliad and the Hebrew Bible).¬† This does not mean that we should never engage in war, although it should be a last resort, but it does mean that we need to acknowledge and recognize what actually does happen in war.¬† However, it will mean that citizens will have to be grown-up and adult about it.¬† They will have to have their eyes open before deciding to embark on a war.¬† That’s what Assange and WikiLeaks force us to be.

At the same time, I don’t think that this is a fair article.¬† Coleen Rowley criticizes Keller for his views on Iraq, not primarily for his portrayal of Assange in Keller’s recent New York Times piece. I don’t think that Keller’s views on Iraq automatically prejudice him in the case of Assange. ¬†In spite of its massive flaws, I support our policy in Iraq, and yet I am glad for what Assange has done.¬† Keller was simply pointing out Assange’s strange personality and behavior.¬† Given the significance of WikiLeaks, Keller’s comments here are newsworthy.¬† Assange is part of the story.¬† That does not nullify or diminish the importance of what Assange has done.

http://www.michaelmoore.com/words/mike-friends-blog/nyts-keller-disparages

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Egypt and Crony Capitalism

"Egyptians in front of the rubble of a looted property in Cairo belonging to Ahmed Ezz, one of the leading figures in the National Democratic Party."

Of course, this is far from a free market–when the government picks and chooses the economic winners among its allies and friends. ¬† It’s yet another example of government by the few for the few.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/07/world/middleeast/07corruption.html?hpw

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Liberal Support For Middle East Dictators

Many commentators (including me) have noted conservative support for Arab/Islamic dictatorships in the Middle East.  But this is no less true of the left who have readily defended tyranny in Iran and other places while condemning Israel, which is a democratic state.  Here is an essay on this by Alan Dershowitz.

I find it intriguing that ideologues (whether conservative or liberal) are much more likely than non-ideologues to shelve their supposed principles when an article of their ideology is under threat. ¬†Here the left shelves democracy in order to affirm underdog Arab/Muslim societies and to condemn bully Israel. ¬†Some on the right do the same by supporting dictatorships in Egypt and Saudi Arabia (for example), claiming that stability trumps democracy–except when the US invaded Iraq.

http://www.hudson-ny.org/1860/hard-left-arab-despotism

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Al-Jazeera and a Free Press

http://www.thenation.com/blog/158183/washington-embraces-al-jazeera


This is an excellent discussion of Al-Jazeera and its crucial role in the Middle East.  The Bush administration hated Al-Jazeera when it did reporting that was not supportive of US policy in Iraq, and it went after their reporters.  Of course, presidential administrations in the past have not liked a lot of US media either and have targeted them as well.  Now we see the essential importance of an active, free press, and the current US government finally embraces it.  Democracy and freedom depend upon it.  The more openness and transparency that a truly free press demands, the greater the chance for truly humane, compassionate societies to evolve.  Ironic that it took an Arabic-language news organization to show us this.

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Jon Stewart as Change Agent

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/27/business/media/27stewart.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

We often think of comedy and satire as letting off steam or entertainment.  However, a brilliant comedian can use them and his laugh pulpit to shame those who would deny our commitment to the suffering heroes of September 11, 2001, and to push the government to honor its promise to those who protect and defend our nation.

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Outsourcing

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/us_overseas_hiring

If we want to alter this trend, the US will have to improve its educational levels and make sure that corporations pay their fair share of taxes (which they are not because of loopholes).

The decline of educational quality in the US is part of the reason for this.

The other is cheap labor in developing countries.  Corporations are able to take advantage of this labor without suffering financial consequences in the US.  However, corporations should contribute sufficiently to the national community that makes it possible for them to exist and thrive.  Otherwise we will not be able to maintain our standard of living and quality of life.

The rise of transnational actors like multinational corporations and the decline of the power of nation states has negative consequences such as this, but it also promises new kinds of structures through which humans will govern themselves.  Corporations have their own interests, and communities have theirs.  Just as corporations protect themselves, communities will have to do the same.  Corporations are driven by economic goals, but communities have moral concerns.  This divergence in interest will inevitably force communities to find others ways of asserting themselves, as national governments find themselves unable to act.  These communities may exist as places, but they may also form as virtual entities.   Instead of looking at a global map with nations, we may be beginning to see the emergence of another kind of map with different governing entities.

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Noam Chomsky and Israel

I wrote the following to a friend when he sent me an article by Noam Chomsky from Salon: http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/feature/2010/04/27/chomsky_middle_east/index.html?source=newsletter

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Chomsky claims he is a Zionist, but does not really support the idea of a Jewish state or of a two-solution (even though he implies that he does here and elsewhere–he’s not serious and calls it temporary).¬† He does not take seriously into account Arab anti-semitism and Arab views of Jews over the decades or, even more important, the Arab commitment to annihilating Israel.¬† He neglects to mention that Israel came to occupy the West Bank in 1967, because every surrounding country was on the verge of a massive attack against Israel motivated by the desire to drive “Israel into the sea.”¬† What was Israel supposed to do?¬† Allow themselves to be slaughtered to feed the egos of those who do not believe that Jews have a right to defend themselves?¬† The goal of annihilating Israel and Jews still remains for many, obviously for Hamas, but even in the PLO and in many Arab societies, as well as the Iranian government.

How do you have a peace agreement when the majority of the peoples around you wish to destroy your country and slaughter or deport your citizens?  How do you have a peace agreement with a government which does not demonstrate a commitment to a democratic, non-corrupt, free society?  How do you have a peace agreement with a government that does not demonstrate even the most rudimentary capacity to run an orderly society?

Chomsky also claims in many of his interviews and writing that antisemitism no longer exists in any meaningful form.¬† That’s nice for him.¬† I don’t know what reality he lives in, but it’s not one I’m familiar with.¬† Perhaps he should take a look at what it’s like to be Jewish in France or Britain or Venezuela.¬† Or he might take a look at FBI religious hate crime stats in the US, which show that in 2007 69.2% of religious hate crimes are against Jews while 8.7% are of an anti-Islamic bias (http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/hc2007/victims.htm).¬† Chomsky is a well-to-do, successful, academic in a highly privileged institution who has no clue what it’s currently like to be Jewish in other settings, including the Middle East.

The real reason that Chomsky opposes Israel is that he is at heart an anarchist and does not really believe that states should exist in the first place–certainly not a Jewish state.¬† That’s nice for those who live in La La land.¬† I am certainly no backer of nation states and believe that they are on their way out as governing entities.¬† But I’m not so silly as to believe that we don’t need government and authority of some kind.

It’s sad that Salon would feature someone like Chomsky who is not taken seriously in the Jewish community, even on the left.¬† There are many others who could critique Israeli policies and offer a progressive vision of the Middle East.¬† Featuring Chomsky, an anarchist, does not encourage discussion or debate.¬† It shuts it down.

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By the way, I’m not joking when I call Chomsky an anarchist.¬†¬† He really is a self-proclaimed anarchist.¬† He has written extensively on the topic, including a book.¬† My best guess (and it’s only a guess) is that a lot of his strong opposition to Israel stems from his own Jewish identity and his anarchism.¬† As a Jew, he is especially opposed to Zionism and Jewish statehood, because the very concept of statehood is anathema to him.

But, in the real world today, with the way people live and act, the possibility of anarchism is a fantasy.  It bears a lot of resemblance to radical libertarianism, which comes from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum.

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Judaism and Social Action IV

One further positive on government:¬† the environment.¬† If we didn’t have federal mandates, Lake Erie would still be burning, chemical and other toxic waste producing companies would be doing more damage to our soil and water, I and lots of others would be suffering from more severe asthma-induced air pollution (I’m personally still waiting for more restrictions on air particulates–it would help me to breathe), we’d continue to enjoy the benefits of DDT in our food, etc.¬† Sometimes the mandates are too strict (I’ve seen that with our own small family property in the Boston area), but all in all I prefer to be able to eat, drink, breathe, and live on a healthy planet.¬† If you want it the other way, take a look at Love Canal and other similar locations:¬† that’s what we have to look forward to without government “improvements.”

Again, government (WE) sometimes does the job well and sometimes badly.¬† That doesn’t mean we should either rely on government or remove it, but frankly we need to look to ourselves and ask ourselves what we’re doing wrong or not doing at all.¬† It’s up to us.¬† Government ineffectivenss, impersonalness, and bloat are just smptoms of our own attitudes and behaviors.

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Judaism and Social Action III

An email response to a friend of mine:

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A couple of points.¬† You’re right.¬† There is a distinction between government-sponsored social action and social action in a Jewish context.¬† But the distinction is NOT between “government” and the “individual.”

For one thing, “government” is composed of individuals–just like you and I, they’re members of our communities.¬† There is no “us” and “them” (i.e. goverment and people).¬† That’s an illusion.¬† The government is “us”; if we don’t like it, that’s our problem, and we should elect new reps who will change it (obviously campaign finance reform may be necessary, but that’s ultimately in our hands too).¬† Posing government as some kind of demonic bogeyman is just another form of scapegoating.¬† It tries to fob off our problems on some other entity or group of individuals.¬† It’s another component of the victim mentality prevalent in Western culture.¬† Usually we think of ethnic groups as engaging in the discourse of victimiziation, but those who blame the government for all of our ills do exactly the same thing.

Government does good things, and government does bad things.¬† It built our highway system.¬† The Voting Rights Act allowed African-Americans to vote in the South.¬† It gave us the GI Bill of WWII, which allowed a whole generation of GI’s to attend college and buy homes and helped to produce the modern American economy from which we still benefit.¬† For all its faults, affirmative action and diversity have produced work forces that include women and minorities–I think of universities where I have worked, and I know that they would look very different without the pressure of government (probably hardly any women or minorities).¬† Of course, government does bad things as well.¬† Look at our tax code.¬† Look at the huge bureacracies.¬† Look at the welfare system.¬† Look at the Post Office.¬† Look at the mess we have for an educational system.¬† In the end, what government does well and what government does badly simply reflects on US.¬† Good or bad, in the end we are responsible.¬† Instead of blaming government or the “system,” we need to take a good, hard look at ourselves.

As to Judaism on social action.¬† Judaism does not view individuals as completely separate from their communities.¬† That’s why at Yom Kippur we atone for sins that we ourselves as individuals may not have committed.¬† And Judaism always views indidiuals as part of a larger Jewish community.¬† And the rabbis wrote the Mishnah, Talmud, and Responsa for the express purpose of governance.¬† They always envisioned a Jewish society in which these laws (civil, criminal, and religious) would run a nation.¬† That’s because Judaism isn’t solely a religion, but also a culture, a people, and a nation.¬† It’s both indidivual and group.¬† The two go together.¬† Tzedakah, etc., are OBLIGATIONS that Jews have both as indviduals and as a community.¬† The rabbis viewed those who did not do their share not only as making an individual error, but as disturbing the harmony and well-being of the larger group and even the cosmos.¬† And there were penalties when such behavior got out of hand.¬† I’m not personally a big fan of a rabbinic government, but, when we refer to the rabbis, we should be clear:¬† THAT’S WHAT THEY THOUGHT.¬† It’s fine to emphasize the individual over the group (though I myself prefer a more balanced and integrated approach), but in any case that’s not how the rabbis thought or think even now in Israel.

The individualism that some in our country emphasize reflects a very different tradition from the rabbinic one.¬† It’s a wonderful tradition that has helped to make our nation what it is today, but (in my opinion) it owes more to the Enlightenment than to any earlier religious traditions.¬† As for myself, I believe that we can exist both as individuals with our own personal goals and needs and as members of larger communities with whom we share group commitments and oblgations.¬† It’s always a balance, but that’s the challenge we have to acknowledge and face.

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Not Democrats vs. Republicans, but Elites vs. Working People

I think that this by article by Dan Gerstein is excellent.

http://www.forbes.com/2010/01/20/scott-brown-health-care-republicans-democrats-opinions-columnists-dan-gerstein.html?boxes=opinionschannellighttop

See also this piece on smart populism: http://www.newsweek.com/2010/01/28/the-wisdom-of-crowds.html

And see this one on progressive vs. populist politics: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/georgepacker/2010/03/the-progressive-and-the-populist.html

The real issue in the U.S is not Democrat vs. Republican, liberal vs. conservative, big government vs. small government, libertarian vs. communitarian, raise taxes vs. cut taxes, etc. Rather the fundamental division is between the elites and the working class (which is the vast majority of us). Many of us don’t like to think of ourselves as working stiffs, but we are if we have to work to live or if we can’t afford to pay massive hospital bills. Those in power would like us to imagine that we will all be billionaires or that our tastes (food, literature) make us better than others, because that keeps us divided and impotent.

There are elites from the entire political spectrum. The extreme wealthy back both Democrats and Republicans. We are chumps if we think otherwise. And then there are those in both parties who have contempt for working people–and many of those who express that contempt are themselves working people. Many conservatives sneer at those who are unable to get adequate medical care, because for them it’s an individual responsibility. Many liberals have contempt for those who express frustration with taxes that make it impossible to live in many communities. Many conservatives look on anything intellectual, scholarly, or environmental as a waste of time. Many liberals scorn sports, pick-up trucks, budget restraint, and down-to-earth pragmatism.

I consider myself a radical independent and a progressive populist. For me health care is essential and a top priority. I consider access to adequate health care a basic right and a prerequisite for a civilized society. But people are hurting economically right now and fearful about employment, and they need relief. If the government does not address the basic fear of those in the workforce and show that it understands what we are facing, then no reform will ever get done on anything. We need leaders who comprehend what it is to struggle in day-to-day life and address those of us who deeply want reform, but who also have to work.

Right now our leaders may talk about jobs and the economy, but I don’t have the sense that they identify with working people. Until they do, one party will defeat the other, only to be defeated again. It is an illusory cycle of change, where movement seems to take place, but actually we’re standing still. And, as the world changes swiftly around us, our government will be in effect non-functional (as it seems to be now). And then there will be two choices: a demagogue (or a demagogic movement) will find his or her way into the vacuum and take us in to some kind of authoritarian hell; or (I hope) a grass roots movement will force a third party or some other mechanism to emerge that will make our political leaders responsive to the concerns of those of us in the trenches and move us forward as a free society.

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Judaism and Social Action II

This is an email response to a friend of mine:

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We both agree then:¬† The Government is US, and there are appropriate and inappropriate uses of government (federal, state, county, city).¬† And you’re right that the GI bill and the federal interstate highway system are projects WE commisioned government to implement.¬† That’s exactly my point:¬† “They” is “us.”

But here’s where we disagree.¬† The very projects that changed our lives are “improvement” projects.¬† They are a form of “social action.”¬† The GI Bill allowed a whole generation of people to move into the middle class.¬† The interstate highway program (even though it began as a defense project) made it possible to truck goods quickly and efficiently all across the country and helped to unify this county by making it accessible to a much larger percentage of the population.¬† Social Security and Medicare helped to transform the economic and social status of our elderly population.¬† Affirmative Action (flawed as it is) made it possible for large numbers of women and minoirites to enter into careers and companies from which they would otherwise have been excluded.¬† Etc.¬† This all involves improvement. ¬† If you call that “socialism,” then I guess we’re stuck.¬† I call it intelligent public policy.¬† And nothing is value-free.

Further, “improvement” is related to “stability.”¬† Look at Cincinnati and what happens when a city fails to deal with deeply rooted policies of racial prejudice.¬† City government in Boston did something different.¬† When confronted with the same problems, the mayor and council adopted a plan that changed the ethnic and racial makeup of its police force.¬† Guess what?¬† The problems diminished, and Boston (once synonymous with racial tension) has developed a reputation for decent community policing and relative ethnic harmony.¬† In other words, if you want stability, you also need “improvement.”¬† I don’t see how you do this without government (WE), though private corporations and non-profit groups are equally important.¬† Cliched as it is, “private-public partnerships” is an excellent and apt phrase.¬† By its very definition, government is involved in forms of social action.¬† Otherwise, I guess we’re back to the state of nature.

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Judaism and Social Action I

This is an email response to a friend of mine:

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I enjoyed your essay. There’s a lot there that makes sense. I think you’re right about the importance of “separation” and binary opposition. Have you read the work of the structural anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, on this general subject? He bases his theory primarily on the work of structural linguistics and its application in the study of kinship patterns. The anthropologist, Mary Douglas, has a lot to say as well (particularly in her book, “Purity and Danger”). Most recently, Saul Olyan has written a book that you might find interesting and relevant: “Rites and Rank: Hiearchy in Biblical Representations of Cult” (Princeton, 2000). I have not seen or read it, but he apparently deals with these issues in detail.

On the issue of polarity in Christianity, you definitely make a good point about the centrality of evil, the consequent concern for preventing it, and the resultant tragedies that have occured. Yet, it is also true that Christianity is fundamentally different from Zoroastrian religion in at least one respect. Christianity does not posit an equal force of evil (the devil) in the universe that is on a par with God (good). Gnostics, Mandaeans, and even some Jews (Elisha ben Abuya) may have done this, but not the mainstream Christian tradition as it has come down. Original sin is a human creation (Adam and Eve), not directly part of the original creation of God. So Christian views of evil are actually rather complex.

At the same time, Judaism was certainly influenced by Zoroastrian religion. The notions of an afterlife, physical resurrection, and paradise may all have part of their origin in Zorastrianism. And the Christian idea of a “devil” figure comes from Judaism! Satan occurs in Job, and in later intertestamental Jewish texts, Satan appears as an opponent of God. Many Jews have had, and continue to have, a preoccupation with evil forces in the universe. Evil is not an exclusively Christian concern, though I think you’re right that Christians may emphasize it somewhat more than Jews, especially as an abstract concept or force in the universe. You’re also right that Christians tend to place evil outside of ourselves and the world than have Jews. And your point about entropy and original sin is excellent.

Yet, I do believe that we Jews have had our own preoccupations as well and that this has led to our own process of externalization: unclean and clean, pure and impure, especially. While traditional Judaism has not posited “sin” as an outside force, we have tried to keep “impurity” and “uncleanliness” outside of our environments. Some have gone to great lengths to achieve this. Judaism has tended to envision these disturbing elements not in theological terms, but rather in ritual terms.

As for “gemilut hasadim,” I think “acts of mercy” or “acts of compassion” is a translation that does not quite catch the depth of this phrase. “Rahamim” usually translates “mercy,” and that’s what most translators have used. “Hesed” can mean “kindness, “love,” “affection,” “piety,” and more. “ahabah” refers to the concept of love, particularly between human beings (whether that of friendship or family). It’s a very common word in Hebrew. “Lovingkindness” is an English attempt at trying to convey two of the connotations of “hesed”: “love and “kindness.” I think “hesed” includes the quality of humaneness associated with the Yiddish word (from German) for a real human being, “Mensch”: Somebody who goes above and beyond their apparent obligations to take the pain, suffering (and joy!) of others into their hearts. It is a concern for others that includes an awareness of our fundamental connectedness to one another.

The noun, “gemilut,” comes from the Hebrew verb, “gamal”: “to do good/evil,” “to reward,” “repay,” “ripen,” “wean.” “Gemilut” is not used in the Bible, however, and we are not certain of its original meaning. It is my hunch that “gemilut” conveys a sense of “ACTION,” EDUCATION (broadly speaking), and also of “MORAL OBLIGATION`.” So “gemilut hasadim” is a moral imperative to love your neighbors, helping them when they need it and sharing in their joy: clothing the naked, feeding the starving, healing the sick, comforting the bereaved and the depressed, celebrating weddings, rejoicing in other’s successes, adding positive energy to the world. It’s that force of goodness in the world that maintains our existence, as Simeon the Righteous implied when he said, “On three things, the world stands: the Torah, worship, and acts of lovingkindness.”

So “gemilut hasadim” definitely calls us to act on behalf of others, including social action. As to the specifics of “sweatshops,” you have made some very good points. This is not an easy issue. Even so, I think, for example, we have an obligation to stand up for what we believe. If we believe that it is inappropriate and immoral for children to work full-time for low pay at factories which produce our clothing, we have an obligation to say so and work toward another means of production. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, industrialists and free market theorists offered the same arguments when they faced popular opposition to child labor. Yet, though the content of the arguments had changed, the assumptions have remained more or less the same since antiquity: cheap labor allows the production of more goods at a lower cost and greater profit.

But we decided to pursue another course, eventually resulting in a system of compulsory education for children. In fact, this gave us the skilled labor that allowed us to create the powerful economic engines characteristic of Western nations. I think we have the obligation to encourage other countries to take a similar course–to use the incentives at our disposal in order to produce more just societies. Do we want societies riven by the division of the population into small wealthy classes and large poor classes? I don’t think so. What threatens our national security? I believe it is no longer large armies, but rather unstable nations, much of whose populations live in poverty, illiteracy, poor health, and consequent despair. This produces terrorism, jingoistic nationalism, mass emigrations, environmental disasters, population explosions, drug economies, antagonism to the U.S. and the West, etc. It’s not just a moral or economic issue, but one of national security. By discouraging child labor and by encouraging education, we have the chance to see the formation of nations with dynamic middle classes and more powerful economies. In other words, we will have a more productive and safer world. At least, I hope so.

I’m by no means an expert on this, but it seems to me that the moral call to social action and economics actually conspired to create what we have now. Does it always work out this way? No. Do good intentions sometimes lead to bad results? Yes. Can bad intentions actually at times produce good results? Yes. Can good people disagree about a moral course of action? Of course. In fact, the discussion itself may produce an awareness and a plan of action that would not have otherwise existed.

I believe, however, that “Gemilut hasadim” does call us to take action on behalf of others, including those we don’t even know in parts of the world we may never have visited. We may make mistakes, but that does not mean we should avoid putting ourselves in the world. Not to do so is (in my opinion) an error and misses the thrust of “gemilut hasadim.”

Thank you for thinking about these issues so deeply. Your essay should help us all. I know it’s helped me. I think you’re absolutely right about God and the holocaust. We spend too much time thinking about God’s intentions and not enough looking at our own actions and foibles. Also, I had never thought about entropy in such positive terms as you put it. You really changed my view there Perhaps entropy is a gift that God has given us. Hmm . . .

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